Posts tagged books

Twenty-seventeen media diet: books & articles

I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked throughout 2017, and most of the times ended up entertaining myself with some sci-fi escapism (or not, given how I tend to go for the bleak stuff). Still, I would like to highlight a few books that left an impression:

Laurent Binet’s HHhH would be a very thrilling account of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of high-ranking nazi Reinhard Heydrich by a czechoslovak commando during World War II. Even though it would be wrong to describe reading this book as a joy, given the book’s description of the rise of nazism and of nazi atrocities, it is true that I found HHhH unputdownable, mostly because of the book’s narration from the point of view of its author, researching the book as it is written — eg. finding a crucial detail in a museum in Prague while on holiday there, commenting on how an old film adaptation of the events gets a few things wrong, being constaly unsure of the color of the car Heydrich was in during the assassination, etc.

I really liked the worldbuilding on Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books, of which I’m halfway through The Will to Battle, the third in what is expected to be a tetralogy. I’m still a little bit unsure about the premise (There’s going to be a war! Why? Because there’s going to be a war!), and the structure of the books tends to be a bit boring sometimes, specially in the second volume (a dialogue scene, then another dialogue scene, and another, and another), the utopian future world Palmer describes is very consistent and really stays with me, a marvel I would like to see like no other in earthly sci-fi. I see some hints in The Will to Battle that Ada Palmer may be improving at writing action, and if so I can’t hardly wait for the final chapter. And given the worldbuilding, the number of interesting characters, the operatic style, the blood and the constant menace, I hope HBO comes calling. That I would watch.

I’ve also given much thought to Cixin Liu’s bleak Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. While parts still feel very unsophisticated (such as the very weak writing of female characters), it’s very interesting to read hard sci-fi with a chinese point-of-view. And most of all (a spoiler for the second volume, The Dark Forest, follows), Liu offers one very interesting and extremely unsettling theory about why we haven’t yet found any other signs of life in the universe: every advanced civilization is hiding, as demonstrations of intelligent life are swifly met with extermination before they can grow to be a threat. Add the SETI project to our list of existential threats.

I haven’t watched the series, but did feel inclined to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Despite being written in the 1980s, I agree that it is a dystopia that captures many anxieties of 2017, and for all the ways it may strike us implausible that something as Gilead may be implemented in the West, we should never forget it has happened multiple times before (eg. just look at how Afeghanistan devolved from an emerging developing country to Taliban rule in less than two decades). Therein lies the power of distopia. We may never agree on the utopia we want — Ada Palmer’s books shows how her multiple choice utopia breaks (and that one is only made possible because of free energy and a highly unplausible transport technology). However, we may agree on what we don’t. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!

I’ve also read quite a few online articles, of which I recommend the following:

There is no alternative?

Sciences & philosophy

The decline of academia

When technology backfires

Art and media

Funny stuff

One of my absolutely favourite websites lately has been The Public Domain Review, a journal by the Open Knowledge Foundation celebrating public domain trasures. For instance, Flowers in the Sky presents changing depictions of astronomical phenomena over the centuries (I really like the above 16th century German illustration of a comet seen five centuries prior).

The Review also published its Book of Selected Essays, which I received recently and thoroughly recommend.

If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success.

G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered (1915), as quoted by Jason Kottke.

Kottke is right to point out Chesterton wrote the last time social class inequality was as high as it is today. Like then, nowadays there’s a flood of literature about Attaining Success (a.k.a. Entrepreneurship), books but also blogs, podcasts both daily and weekly in audio and video formats, along with the acompanying conferences, workshops, incubators, seminars, meetings, camps, reality television and the odd TED talk, in both ‘real TED’ and totally unaccountable (eg. TEDx) versions. The artistic-minded can also expect a similar plethora of writings and speeches about Creativity. Success does seem to belong to the quacks writing about it, most of whom aren’t as articulate as a Malcolm Gladwell and provide nothing better than garden-variety homeopathy evangelists.

At any rate, literature about Success (and Creativity) does provide one with a good heuristic on spotting a phony. Just look at his or hers’ bookshelf or browsing/sharing preferences. As Chesterton points out, a lack of ‘technical’ literature (on the game of whist, on design, on computer programming, on writing, &etc.) is the mark of the mediocre.

This book was given to me by my grandmother shortly before she died. It is a nineteenth century ‘encyclopedic manual’ that was issued to schoolteachers and had belonged to her own grandfather. As like most semi-gifted children I spent most of my childhood reading rather than interacting, whenever I went to the countryside to visit my grandparents I would spend most time in the living room, browsing whatever books I could find. Since most were religious in nature and didn’t interest me, I always ended up reading chapters of this book — chapters on Morals and Religion (written from a Catholic fundamentalist perspective and which reminded me too much of Church on Sundays, so I skipped ahead), Mathematics and Geometry, Physical Sciences, History and Political Geography, and, interestingly, Greco-Roman Mythology.

The joy I felt when my grandmother gave me this book subsided and after she died it became just a memento, a gift from the grandparent I got to know the least, from whom I hold just brief memories from those rare, once-a-year visits. At home in the city the book laid largely unnoticed among all the other tomes in my bookcase, even if I would entertain the thought that it was really valuable (it’s not — mint condition copies can be bought for cheap online). I reasoned Manual Encyclopedico was an antique book, after all!

As I recently rediscovered the book I also learned to see it as a symbol of my own smartassedness. Feasting on encyclopedic information had been an addiction since an early age. From lonely afternoons reading the Junior Woodchucks Library in childhood to late-night binge-reading on Wikipedia in my late twenties, I had started to feel the weight of my own gluttony for facts. I’ve found some people may compliment me for being knowledgeable and opinionated, but most will resent me (and there’s an overlap between the two groups). Being a ‘know-it-all’ became a common accusation in foundering relationships; or the justification for a bad first impression. Being self-aware and trying to do something about it only seemed to make matters worse.

It took me quite a while to understand information doesn’t equal wisdom, and knowledge of ‘facts’ will often just lead us astray. I may carry a store of knowledge of a wide-ranging level of usefulness and expertise, but at thirty-four I still feel the same teenage hard time engaging in conversation with people I don’t know very well.

Paradoxically I should have paid more attention to Manual Encyclopedico. Besides all the facts about History and Political Geography which are obviously long outdated, in the old book a luminiferous aether is presumed to permeate the universe and our Sun is described as an inhabitable globe with a "radiant atmosphere" in the same pages that list the sixty-four known ‘planets’ of our Solar System. The lightning rod, the train and the atmospheric baloon are described as cutting-edge technologies. I used to have great fun reading all these ‘facts’ which were so obviously wrong and outdated. What I should have understood is that it is in the nature of facts themselves to suddenly become untrue.

This simple observation is the great nugget of wisdom I should have found in these pages. I was just too blind to see it.